Matmos and Wobbly live on Hollow Earth Radio by hollowearthradio
Now I really wish I’d gone to the Extreme Animals show at 2020 Cycle on Sunday night. I skipped the show because I was just too tired from a long weekend of patriotic gluttony, but I’m sure it would have been the perfect counterpoint to last night’s Matmos performance at the Triple Door. Both acts are electronic duos. Both are operate on the far experimental fringes of electronic music—no heady house thumps here, just lo-fi MIDI thrash in the case of Extreme Animals and glitchy sample manipulation in the case of Matmos. Both are involved in visual as well as audio art—Extreme Animals share a member with the eye-searing Paper Rad collective; Matmos incorporate a variety of film and video into their live sets. Both are academics—both members of Extreme Animals are currently teaching at universities; while Matmos’ Drew Daniel is an assistant professor of English at Johns Hopkins, and partner MC Schmidt has taught at the San Francisco Art Institute. So how come Extreme Animals plays at a scrappy bicycle shop in the CD while Matmos performs at a posh dinner theater downtown?
Well, for all they have in common, the two acts have decidedly different aesthetics. Extreme Animals, in the fine Paper Rad tradition, are all about plush neon garbage—8-bit bleeps, pixellated flash graphics; clashing html color codes; hideous stuffed animals and textiles. Their shows are absurd, sweaty basement rave-ups, finding the not-so unlikely middle ground between happy hardcore and the regular punk variety. They’re also committed to the particular kind of DIY asceticism that insists on cheap, shitty gear, improvised sound, unusual spaces, and such—DIY that never lets you forget it’s DIY.
Matmos, on the other hand, are more staid live performers. Their setups are often elaborate (and probably expensive), and their routines are, if not carefully practiced, then at least painstakingly conceived. (It should be pointed out, for the DIY diehards, that Matmos, you know, do make all their music themselves, even if they cede the distribution and promotional concerns to Matador.) Last night’s show began with them wandering through the seated crowd, from the back of the room towards the stage, waving flashlights and laser pointers, the refracted and direct light triggering some optical sensors (possibly theremins, possibly just controllers) onstage—the sound went from a series of geiger-counter clicks to oscillating squeals to low frequency thumps. (Brandon Ivers: “This is some serious Blue Man Group shit.”)
When they got onstage, Daniel lit a candle next to his laptops. He made a triangle with his fingers above the candle and peered through it at the audience before picking up a musical triangle and striking it (“ting”) in the same spot. (If Extreme Animals lit anything on fire during their set, I’d just be worried.) There was, amidst their slowly growing noise, the sound of glass breaking, and it wasn’t entirely clear whether it was a sample triggered or the sound of someone in the venue actually breaking a glass (the black-clad waitstaff continued floating serenely around the darkened venue like shadows). At the end of this first “proper” song, Daniel blew the candle out to a momentary hush and then loud applause.
Matmos, for all the pornographic vhs footage and bursts of feedback or arrhythmia, are kind of like the Wolf Eyes you can bring home to mother without worrying they’ll make a mess of the dinner table. They’re dapper and polite, funny and smart, and their most abrasive musical moments still feel more academic and playful than genuinely anti-social. Schmidt compliments the Triple Door, saying it’s an incredible place to play, and the group (joined by a third man on guitar tonight) launches into a groovier, pulsing number backed by a psychedelic black and white mandala of fine, overlapping radial lines.
Next up was “a song about VHS tape, perhaps some of you older people remember it.” Here was the (admittedly softcore) porn—a hung, naked young man with a bleach blond mop of hair hanging out (literally) in some backyard hot tub (the guy kind of looked like Gary from Partman Parthorse, only without underpants). The footage was slowed and slurred, damaged as if by bad tape heads. The music was total faux porn soundtrack, all languid wah wah guitar, the stuff that these guys probably have down pat thanks to their sideline business scoring actual gay porn. It sounded good—you wonder if they take the soundtrack work as seriously as they do Matmos, or if maybe they don’t always take Matmos too seriously at all; the show was, at times, fairly goofy. At the song’s climax, the wah wah guitar built into a squalling, shredding feedback, matched by Daniel and Schmidt’s synth oscillations.
They played an older song, from The West, a record of theirs recently rereleased by Portland’s Autofact Records, who was also working Matmos’ merch booth. Schmidt: “A whole record label contained within one boy!” Daniel: “You can fit a lot in a boy.” (No rimshot.) The song featured Schmidt on acoustic guitar, first picking, then sliding up and down the fretboard, his tones plucked and piled up by Daniel on laptop. Behind them, close up still shots of a map jerked gradually westward from the desert to the Pacific coastline, manifest destiny style, before giving way to a pair of rotating spirals. The song ended with Schmidt repeating the phrase “As if it was” through a delay, separating the audible words from the movement of his mouth until the sound died down enough for him to be heard clearly in the room without a mic.
They introduced the next song by saying that the last time they played it had been in a punk forest party in Bologna, Italy, so it’s not all dinner theater all the time for Matmos anyway. The song featured deep, throbbing bass hum that really showed off the THX qualities of the Triple Door’s sound system, vibrating your ass without bruising your ears. The song had a kind of giddy, melting quality, aided by the stroboscopic dot-field projected behind them, with tones swelling and ebbing, eventually adding synthy arpeggios, feedback, and vocoder snippets. This one, I think, is off their most recent, the all-analog synth adventure Supreme Balloon. The song ended with Daniel weaving his way out of the room carrying a pair of speakers, playing out the song’s final sonar-pinging loop as the room’s bass vibration dissipated. They returned for an encore aided by opener Wobbly, an amiable rhythmic jam with the biggest beat of the night, which ended with Schmidt striking a gong.
If I hadn’t seen Extreme Animals a couple months ago, I’m sure I would’ve gone to 2020 Cycle, and I appreciate the DIY and basement shows as much as the next punk, but I have to say, I really enjoyed the kingly drinks-and-dinner-and-entertainment vibe at the Triple Door. Maybe I’m getting old and square, but if that means more shows like last night’s Matmos performance, then I’m down.